Okay, this is the 3rd of 5 posts that I’m doing on lessons I learned during my 1993 bus trip around the United States that I still use today. Let me set the scene for you: I was a 23-year-old hick from Strasburg, Pennsylvania that had done very little traveling in my life. I decided to see America via Greyhound bus because I felt like I needed to get out of my hometown and see my country. I was young, dumb, and far from street smart. I spent nine weeks traveling through 37 states and over 12,000 miles. I had to learn as I went.
Many of the lessons I learned were of the pragmatic nature. But, there were also instances in which I was educated by a wiser, older person who gave me advice about how to navigate the rough waters of bus riding and the world. Today’s post focuses on one of them.
I was in the midst of a 36 hour journey from Dallas to Las Vegas, and a group of us near the back of the bus began swapping anecdotes. Oftentimes the bus functioned like a therapy session; people sharing their stories of desperation and sadness and what they were trying to get to or get away from (hint: this is a foreshadowing of my next post!). One guy’s story stood out, though. Barry was a 49-year-old from Philadelphia that had recently discovered that his wife was cheating on him. He was devastated. And not knowing what else to do, he quit his job, hopped on the bus and began the long journey to his parents’ home in San Diego. When I met him, he had been riding the bus for 7 days.
There were about six of us that formed a very strong bond during the long trip across Texas and New Mexico. By the time we arrived in Phoenix the next day, we had been together for more than 24 hours. Phoenix was the hub to many other cities, so we were all going to be parting ways; they were going west to cities in California and I was headed north to Las Vegas. But, since we all had layovers, the guys talked me into sharing a drink to celebrate our new friendship and -at the same time- to say goodbye. It was a pretty funny scene; we were all un-showered and unkempt and literally running down the streets of Phoenix looking for a place to get a beer. It was certainly a band of misfits invading the sun-drenched sidewalks of this beautiful city.
We were all sitting in a row at the bar, but before long, people started to peel off and head back to the station to make their connections. Soon it was just Barry and I. We talked for a little but soon he had to leave, too. Before we parted ways, though, he got very serious with me. He looked me in the eye like a father to a son and said, “Be careful out there.” In the fairly typical response of a young man to his father, I gave him a “Sure. I’ll be careful,” and went back to nursing my beer. Barry got more earnest, grabbed my arm and said, “I’m serious! Be careful!” I looked at him with a little frustration and said, “Of what?” Barry knew that I had been on the road for about 4 weeks at that point and I had made it thus far. I didn’t understand why he was so uptight. But that’s the difference between the foolish and the wise. The fool isn’t even aware of the danger all around him.
He stared into my eyes again. He was deadly solemn. Even though we had been riding together for over 24 hours, for the first time I really looked at him. The grizzled features of his face were framed by his shoulder length gray hair and an equally gray beard. He was burley in size, and relatively fit for a man his age. But his face was wrinkled and leathery, greatly weathered by a hard life. His eyes, though, were not the eyes of a madman or a psychopath or even a cranky miser. They were the eyes of a father; with just a hint of glaze from the tears that were forming as often happens when the wise are speaking to the fool. I think moments like these are seen as an attempt at redemption for many people. When you’ve learned lessons the hard way, you just want the hearer to understand in order to avoid the same mistakes.
He had my attention. He said, “Listen. There are a lot of scumbags out there and the bus station is full of them. They’re looking for a guy like you. Someone who doesn’t know what’s going on. Someone who is vulnerable and clueless. And you’re a prime target. As you continue to travel around the country, you’re going to find yourself in some very dangerous situations with these people. You’re going to feel the intensity of the situation and you’ll know you’re in trouble. Your instinct is going to be to react. You’re going to want to do something. I’m telling you, though, just wait. As you wait, the situation might even rise in severity. Your fear and anxiety will grow and you’re going to think that you have to do something. I’m telling you, though, just wait. Just be patient. There will be a moment, though . . . A moment that will be clear to you . . . and you’ll know that the situation has gone beyond waiting and that you’re going to have to act. And when it’s time to act, hit hard, hit fast, and get the !@#$ out of there. It’s all about patience until that moment.”
I didn’t say a word. I just sat there. In a soft tone he said, “Do you understand, Quay? This is important.” I looked at him and in all honesty responded, “I get it, Barry.”
I took him seriously, but I don’t think you really realize how this kind of stuff has sunk in until you’re forced to put it into practice. During the remaining 5 weeks of the trip, I had ample opportunity to try it out. In fact, I continued to travel around the world over the next 5 years eventually getting to all 50 states, 27 countries, and 5 continents. And everywhere I went I used Barry’s advice. I had a wide range of experiences that forced me to evaluate what was going on and to be patient. And, although I had some situations that required me to run for my life, I never actually needed to assault someone to protect myself.
But what he was talking about was more than just a practical way to handle a tense situation that requires “fight or flight.” His advice was applicable in a much more broad sense. Because his admonition was not so much about how to react. It was about patience. In fact, it focused on 5 main points: 1.Know what is going on around you. 2. Access the situation. 3.Think critically about the situation. 4. Determine what the options are. 5. And ultimately act on what will be best to thrive in that situation. This requires patience.
I have used his advice in the way we would think most likely; very intense moments of travel in which I had to act or not act based on the scenario. But more importantly, I would say I use it everyday as a husband, father, speaker, youth mentor, counselor, citizen, etc. It is applicable in every situation. “Hit hard. Hit fast. And get the !@#$ out” is ultimately not about how to defend yourself physically. It’s about working through every situation and doing what is most prudent to help you and your family thrive. There are many difficult moments in the day in which we are tempted to skip these steps and just react. We circumvent the process and just go with our immediate instinct. That might mean yelling at someone. That might mean responding sarcastically with our co-worker. That might mean flipping someone off while driving. But it might result in even more foolish reactions like hurting our children or stealing something because we think no one is looking. It might even mean ultimate betrayals like stabbing a friend in the back with information we have about them or cheating on our spouse. All of these “reactionary” responses come with grave consequences that we could have avoided if we had practiced some patience and worked through the five primary points of Barry’s advice.
I’m so thankful for Barry. I haven’t seen him since that day on February 17, 1993 and I doubt I’ll ever see him again. But his memory lives on in my world since I use the advice he gave me that afternoon in Phoenix every day of my life. Sometimes I do better and sometimes worse in practicing patience and critical thinking, but the fact that it’s at the forefront of my mind is due to the acumen of this wise older man from my past. If you’re out there, Barry, it didn’t go to waste. Thanks.